- Era: mid-1500s (?) to present
"The mimed branle called the Branle de la Poule has found particular favor among the students at the great universities. I have placed notes in the tablature to explain the gestures...." (my translation from the original French)
-- from a recently discovered dance fragment signed "T____ A____"
It's always a thrill to discover an entirely new piece of dance history, and since the 16th century is one of my favorites I was especially excited to find something new from that era to add to my dance repertoire. The handwritten source for this dance was found amidst a varied collection of books and papers in a musty church basement located near a major research university and rare book library. The language and phrasing of the source and the nearly illegible signature suggest that Branle de la Poule might actually be one of the miming branles (branles morguez) discussed in the pseudonymous Thoinot Arbeau's 1589 dance manual, Orchésographie (available in English translation as Orchesography), similar to the Branle des Lavandieres and Branle des Pois. Like those branles, it includes imitative gestures and movements in keeping with its title. The signature is mostly illegible, but the initials T and A are clear, suggesting that it might actually have been written by Arbeau himself. The source has not yet been dated, but the contents are sufficiently exciting that I am making them known somewhat prematurely as a service to the historical dance community.
While the musical tablature itself is damaged and difficult to read, many of the steps and gestures themselves are fairly clear. Like many branles, Branle de la Poule is divided into two separate parts, beginning with doubles left and right accompanied by gestures in the clearly described first part. Unfortunately, the second part is more difficult to parse, with several different words crossed out and replaced by others and a large smudge of ink obscuring part of the text. My reconstruction is thus necessarily speculative in places.
Formation: a line or circle of people holding hands. Couples (men to the left of their partners) were the standard, and some possible interpretations of the second part suggest that a partner is needed. All steps are taken sideways, rather than forward and back, except possibly for the circling option in the second part. Steps should be small (about shoulder-width); hops and kicks should be restrained and fairly gentle. The line or circle will move to the left.
When performing a kick, the dancer should hop on one foot and kick the given foot gently forward. So for a "kick left," one hops on the right foot and kicks the left foot forward.
(left, illustration of "pied en l'air gauche," or "kick left")
Branle de la Poule
Part One counts/steps
1-4 Double left; miming: make the hands "like the beak of a bird"
1-4 Double right; miming: move the arms "as if having wings"
1-4 (No foot movement); miming: turn the body (torso? waist?) "like a hen waving its tail"
1-4 Kick left, kick right, kick left, feet together; turning singly counter-clockwise
(all of the above repeated four times)
At this point the writing becomes difficult to read, but there seem to be several possibilities to be used "as the dancer prefers." It is possible either that there were different regional traditions or that the writer actually intended the dancers to decide for themselves what movements to use. The latter possibility offers the potential for substantial awkwardness should the dancers disagree, so it is recommended that a decision on this point be made before commencement of the dance.
Of the given options, two appear to be a turn by two hands and a form of arming, which suggests a choreographic connection both to the "right hands, left hands, right arms, left arms, two hands" sequence found in contemporary Italian sources (in the several Contrapasso variants published by Caroso) and to the the "leading, siding, arming" sequences found in the Playford dances of the mid-17th century. The words petit sault can also be detected in yet a third sequence, which has been partially crossed out but seems to suggest that the dancers move as a group in a circle with steps "like those of the single in the alman," meaning a step followed by a small hop. This would fit with the petit sault (little jumps).
Because of this lack of a complete and definitive description, I am unable to offer a specific reconstruction for this part, but some suggested movements in general keeping with the source and with early dance traditions would be:
- "Arm" by linking elbows (first right and then left) with one's partner and turning completely round in each direction. Repeat as needed to fill out the music.
- Two-hand turns clockwise and counter-clockwise with one's partner.
- Take hands in a circle and perform alman style step-hop singles moving to the left
The eventual choice, out of necessity, is left to the individual dancer. It would be interesting, though highly speculative reconstruction-wise, to vary the movements used for each repetition of the dance.
While circle dances in general survive in the folk tradition in many countries, it is rare for a particular sequence of movements to survive unaltered over the course of centuries. In the case of Branle de la Poule, however, there seems to actually be a common performance tradition which is very close to the instructions given in the source, though the choreography has degenerated somewhat so that the dancers are less mobile than those of Arbeau's day. It is unclear how and why the dance survived when many others, equally worthy, failed to do so, but the connection is explicit and clear. There are dancers alive today who remember dancing Branle de la Poule as a child, and it continues to be passed on via oral tradition today.
I had the good fortune to actually find a video of a number of dancers performing this during the mid-20th century (exact date unknown). The music used appears to be compatible with those notes visible in the original source. So in conclusion, I present for your viewing pleasure, the sadly degenerated modern version of Branle de la Poule. It is my hope that this little writeup will enable those wishing to perform the dance in its historical form to push back somewhat and restore the full beauty of its original choreography and style.
Special thanks to Tyler Ames, Emily Freed, and the rest of the Monday night gang for your assistance with my research and reconstruction of Branle de la Poule. Your suggestions on interpretation were invaluable!